So how is your Religious literacy? How much do you know or understand about Religion’s role in the founding and shaping of our country? Despite past and present cries to remove God, or any religious references from the public square, for better or worse Religion is foundational to the presence of our nation. The hows and whys of this are as varied and multifaceted as the American populace.
With this in mind, I was very excited to view God In America, which aired on Los Angeles’ KCET PBS station from October 11-13, 2010. The documentary series is an American Experience/Frontline coproduction, birthed through the collaborative efforts of executive producer Michael Sullivan, and a team of producers and directors. The documentary seeks to educate, challenge, and inspire individuals about the roots and relevancy of the American spiritual landscape. Michael Sullivan explains in the online introduction, “the American story cannot be fully understood without understanding the country’s religious history. By examining that history, God in America will offer viewers a fresh, revealing and challenging portrait of the country.”
The creators so believe this, that they have made the series available online at PBS.org, and also provide links to purchase the 3-DVD set. They even encourage viewing parties accompanied by a “Viewing Party Kit” that offer options on how people of faith and non-believers might come together and discuss the documentary’s content and their own ideas of Faith in America.
The documentary uses dramatization and commentary from noted historians and religion professors to outline the Religious establishment embodied in the leadership of John Winthrop, to the Religious heretics, like Roger Williams, who quarreled with Puritan authorities over their theology, their continued alliance within the Church of England, and their robbery of Native American lands, and Anne Hutchinson, who accused the ministers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of teaching false doctrine and dared to claim that God spoke directly to her. The original Puritans, Congregationalists, and Catholics who came to the Americas in the name of religious freedom, along with the radicals banished from their midst, shaped religious life and its establishment in the New World.
Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religion at Boston University, and one of the documentary’s commentators, encapsulates this experiment thusly: “We have this notion that this is some kind of special place, and what makes it special is that we can have a special relationship with God. But, the parameters of it are up to debate.”
Revivals marked the transformation and forward movement of faith in America, beginning with George Whitefield lighting the fires of the first Great Awakening through his preaching about Born Again salvation, to James Finley, one of the fathers of the Methodist church and a forerunner to the social gospel revolution. Major change and denominational splintering always occurred on the heels of revivals and awakenings, spearheaded by charismatic leaders who roused the people from a corporate interpretation of faith and religious life, to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and discovering God’s Word for oneself.
Interspersed throughout the documentary is the role that immigration played in changing and shaping Christianity and Judaism, while helping to disseminate competing belief systems to these dominant faiths. Immigration would be as instrumental as Revival in shaking up and changing Religion and religious thought, and with each new wave, the landscape of belief was diversified. The rise of Irish Catholicism, Chinese, Japanese and other East Asians bringing Hinduism and Buddhism to our shores, and quite notably, the rise of Reform Judaism. Isaac Mayer Wise, founder of Hebrew Union College and the father of American Reform Judaism both inspired and offended, yet permanently altered the Religious experience for the American Jew.
As the story moves through the Nineteenth Century, the Civil War and Slavery are at its forefront. President Abraham Lincoln (convincingly dramatized by Christopher Sarandon) speaks to the President’s own spiritual struggles, which ultimately lead to spiritual clarity, and the bedrock decision-making on ending both. Frederick Douglass was brought to life through the dramatic skills of Keith David, and is also prominent in this story. Douglass was crucial to the Abolitionist movement which was pivotal in ending Slavery. Once again, people of faith led the way and changed the concept of how faith should be acted out, transforming our treatment of our fellow man and woman, thus transforming the laws of our country.
Dramatizations give way to copious news footage and sound bites as we move into the Twentieth Century. The Civil Rights Movement was a Revival in and of itself, and like the battle to end Slavery, called into account a country that claimed God as its center and guide, and its founding documents as sacrosanct, yet marginalizes, disenfranchises, and in many cases, brutalizes a sector of its population and citizenry. It was both a moral imperative, as well as a political necessity. This Revival had its own young, fiery leader, in the charismatic 26-year-old Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The series frames Dr. King’s forceful, yet peaceful non-violent stance for the cause of desegregation with that of the Reverend Billy Graham’s polished courting of national leaders. In doing this, it contrasts the dichotomy of viewpoints and approaches toward faith’s transformative work.
As one of the most prominent and respected evangelists of his time, Billy Graham had an unflagging zeal to reach the lost for Jesus, and national leaders were high on his list. He greatly influenced 34th President Dwight D. Eisenhower, but his religious call trumped political leanings, which was evident in his embrace of the Catholic John F. Kennedy as our 35th President.
Rev. Graham saw change occurring through individual hearts being converted, which facilitates the transformation of politics and culture. Dr. King (and many other Revivalists of the past) battled against the Christian status quo and the use of faith as a cloak to cover evil and injustice, rather than champion against it. Anne Hutchinson, James Finley, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and many others were forerunners of, and inspiration to Dr. King’s stance. Religious change should not just be manifest in the heart, but in participative and often disruptive enterprise that permanently reforms the culture.
The close of the era catapults the documentary into its final hours, with the rise in political influence of the Fundamentalist-Evangelicals. First seen as marginalized and isolated since the Scopes evolution trial of 1925 and the death of Williams Jennings Bryan, this sector, now permanently branded as “The Religious Right”, reawakens with the 1973 Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, and what appears to be the cultural decline of Judeo-Christian ethics. The Reverend Jerry Falwell, through the influence of Francis Schaeffer’s work, is the catalyst, with Pat Robertson and others riding the wave. The interesting fact is that up until this time, Both the Rev. Falwell and Robertson were decidedly apolitical, and even preached against Christian’s involvement in politics. But with the winds of change bringing, as Robertson put it, “secular forces invading the province of the church,” so brought the change in their viewpoint, which morphed into political mobilization of believers.
The election of Ronald Reagan as our 40th President brought legitimacy to the Religious Right and its causes, but ultimately left them disillusioned. The so-called social conservative issues highlighted during the Reagan administration were never pushed to the forefront of the national agenda, nor did it bring about significant change in national policy. This same Religious Right was seen as instrumental in electing and re-electing our 43rd President George W. Bush, along with a new wave of Hispanic immigrants and Latino Christians who continue to be a coveted political bloc.
Besides its unvarnished depiction of the multi-layered evolution of Religion in America, the documentary serves to present what I feel is the most measured reflection to date of George W. Bush’s influence on the conversation. President Bush was an unashamed (and often maligned) evangelical, yet as President, he was the first to call for peace and tolerance toward the Muslim community in the wake of 9-11, and his humanitarian policies reflect a clear charge concerning the social gospel. From his condemnation of genocide in Darfur, to his funding and championing of AIDS relief in Africa, to his faith-based initiatives which gave government support to the Church’s mandate of healing the sick, feeding the poor, and reaching out to the disenfranchised.
The documentary comes to a fitting end, dovetailing the Religious Right’s withdrawal from national political involvement, to the Religious Left (spearheaded by Jim Wallis of Sojourners) co-opting of these same tactics and language to rally its base, and ultimately champion and elect Barack Obama as our 44th President. Threaded throughout the documentary is the reflection that at each turn of Revival and reawakening of national expressions of Faith, backlashes inevitably occurred. The Williams Jennings Bryan/Clarence Darrow/Scopes brouhaha, Humanist Vashti McCollum and her challenge to religious instruction in public schools, and Atheist Madelyne Murray O’Hair’s campaign that ultimately removed prayer from public schools, are prominent examples. As we enter the Twenty-first Century, the wave of New Atheist thinkers led by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the disenfranchisement of young people from the political and organized religious experience, and the growing shadow of Islamic fundamentalism appear to be challenging and changing the influence of Religious life in America.
Can we truly compare our current battle over radical Islam and the building of the Ground Zero Mosque with the trans-morphing of the Judeo-Christian foundations between traditional versus contemporary or Orthodox versus Reform? I don’t think so. However, the shaping and defining of religious practice and how God is worshiped, is a distinctly American hallmark, so the struggle and the debate fittingly occurs in our country. In his famous “Composite Nation” speech of 1869, Frederick Douglass posits:” Religious liberty always flourishes best amid the clash and competition of rival religious creeds.”
The debate continues, and God in America is an essential tool in its facilitation.